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By Metropolitan Hierotheos of Nafpaktos

(Continued from here)

Freedom from death and from sin is very closely connected with the freedom of the nous from sin. Freedom is used in this sense in the New Testament, especially in the epistles of the Apostle Paul. Let us look at two characteristic passages.

a) Freedom and nous

The first passage is: “And having been set free from sin, you became slaves of righteousness. I speak in human terms because of the weakness of your flesh. For just as you presented your members as slaves of uncleanness, and of lawlessness leading to more lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves of righteousness for holiness. For when you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness. What fruit did you have then in the things of which you are now ashamed? For the end of those things is death. But now having been set free from sin, and having become slaves of God, you have your fruit unto sanctification, and the end, everlasting life. For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 6,18-22).

Here for the Apostle Paul slavery is linked with slavery to the passions and to the deeds of the flesh, the end of which is death, while freedom is linked with man’s purity from the passions, with holiness, and the end of this freedom is eternal life. In the teaching of the Apostle Paul freedom is in reality the freedom of the nous from attack by the passions, and this brings about illumination of the nous.

St. Nikodemos the Hagiorite, interpreting this passage, says: “There are three freedoms according to Koresios: Freedom of nature, the freedom of grace and the freedom of glory and beatitude. Freedom of nature is contrary to force and to the tendency toward a single good and makes one independent. Freedom of grace is opposed to sin and the passions and makes one righteous and holy. And the freedom of glory is opposed to death and to the temptations of the present life and makes one blessed; this is the Apostle’s word concerning freedom and grace”. So it concerns freedom of the nous.

The second passage of the Apostle Paul is: “For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has made me free from the law of sin and death” (Rom. 8,2). If one links this passage with all the other passages in the same chapter, one will discover that it is a question of the liberation of the nous from the passions and reason, and of illumination of the nous. Thus the same chapter speaks about the carnal mind, which is death, and the mind of the Spirit, which is life and peace (Rom. 8,6); about the Spirit of God, which dwells in man and makes him a son of God (Rom. 8,14-16); about noetic prayer which takes place by the Holy Spirit in the heart, “by whom we cry out, “Abba, Father” (Rom. 8,15); about the fact that the Holy Spirit prays within us: “but the Spirit Himself makes intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered” (Rom. 8,26). Therefore in reality freedom is the freedom of the nous from the passions, and this is what constitutes illumination of the nous.

This is the framework in which the holy Fathers too interpret the relative passages of the Apostle Paul. According to St. Gregory of Sinai, just as the law of the letter is that which acts in the flesh, so the law of the Spirit is the law of life, “working and speaking in the heart”. And while the law of the letter “imperceptibly turns a man into a pharisee”, the law of the spirit “frees the nous from the law of sin and death”. And Niketas Stethatos says that he who cures the passions by the opposite virtues converts the mundane will into “the law of the spirit of life” and makes it free.

So freedom of the nous is illumination of the nous, which is the second stage of the spiritual life and follows the stage of purification. A man first purifies his heart and then his nous is freed and illuminated, after having previously been identified with reason, passions and the environment and in bondage to them.

Here I shall not go into precisely what the nous is according to the Orthodox tradition and the teaching of the holy Fathers of the Church. I did this in another of my books. It should be emphasised here that the nous is the eye of the soul, the purest part of the soul, the energy of the soul which acquires experience of the life of God. It is distinguished from reason in that reason investigates created things and acquires knowledge of created truth, while the nous acquires experience of God and acquires knowledge of uncreated things. The experience of the nous is given expression by reason.

I should like only to point out the teaching of St. John of Damaskos on this subject. When he says that the nous is the purest part of the soul, and that “as the eye is to the body, so is the nous to the soul”, he is making a distinction between the nous and reason. Man is rational. There are three powers which make up man’s soul: those of reason, desire and anger. He writes characteristically: those of reason are the theoretikon and the praktikon, the theoretikon being the understanding, as it has the things that are, and the praktikon is the desiring, which defines the right word for actions. And they call the theoretikon nous and the praktikon word, and the theoretikon wisdom and the praktikon prudence”. Thus the nous is the theoretikon of the rational part of the soul, which understands beings and possesses wisdom, while reason is the practical part of the soul which elaborates thoughts and defines the right reason in practical things.

Therefore a natural man is one whose nous and reason move in parallel according to their predestination. When the nous is identified with reason, a number of problems are created. Therefore the primary work of orthodox life and orthodox asceticism lies in the effort of the nous to be freed from its slavery to all the created things and to be left free to attain the wisdom of God. In what follows we shall speak of the liberation of the nous, which I think is one of the most fundamental tasks of orthodox theology, in the teaching of Isaiah the Solitary. The account in the works of the so-called neptic Fathers on this subject is very significant. For the saints, through long experience and years of struggle over these matters, gained knowledge of themselves and consequently acquired a very deep knowledge of man. They know what man is, what are his depths, how he is enslaved and how he is freed from this slavery. What we shall hear from Isaiah the solitary is not conjecture and philosophy, but experiential theology.

b) Freedom of the nous, according to St. Abba Isaiah the Solitary

1) The title of the chapters which we are going to examine is very characteristic: “On guarding the nous”. These chapters speak of the nous, the heart and the conscience. While it seems that these three concepts are different from one another, there is unity among them as well. The nous which is diffused through the senses into the surroundings should return to the heart. The nous is united with the heart by the power and energy of the Holy Spirit. When the nous returns to the heart from its diffusion, it dwells within it and sheds grace on the heart. Then the heart becomes a temple of the Holy Spirit and the nous becomes king and world-ruler of the passions. It is then that the conscience is functioning normally. It has a pure word and its voice is the voice of God. For in the Orthodox Tradition when we speak of conscience we do not mean an abstract voice, we do not mean it in the philosophical and ethical sense of the term, but as the voice of God which is heard in the pure heart. And the purer the heart, the more purely the voice of God is heard. Therefore the keeping of the nous, the keeping of the heart and the keeping of the conscience are one. So in what follows, what is said about the heart relates to the conscience as well, what is said about the conscience relates to the heart as well, and what is said about the nous relates to the heart and the conscience.

2) In his chapters Abba Isaiah the Solitary speaks of the darkening of the nous. When the nous is withdrawn from God and loses God’s grace, it is darkened and blinded. The passions darken man’s nous. When a person does not struggle to free himself from the action of the passions, he cannot make progress with God. “As a result the nous is always shrouded in darkness and cannot advance in holiness, because it does not make the effort to uproot these thoughts by means of spiritual knowledge”.

The nous is disturbed by thoughts. Thoughts create great agitation in the inner world of man, but particularly in the nous, “troubling it with distractions and making it lazy”. When the nous is distracted and lazy it becomes predisposed to being captured and darkened. In the patristic tradition the nous should always be alert and ready.

The nous is the nourisher of the heart, just as the eye is the nourisher of reason. If the nous is healthy, then the heart is also healthy, but if the nous is ill, then the heart too is ill. The heart of man is nourished well or badly by the nous. The darkened nous which is distracted and lazy corrupts the heart. “If some shameful thought is sown in your heart as you are sitting in your cell, watch out. Resist the evil…”.

Impurity of the heart, all the passions which are sown by the nous, have dreadful consequences for man. The conscience disturbs, reproaches and accuses. In so far as a man is reproached by his conscience, he is not free. Freedom is experienced chiefly in the core of man’s being. Abba Isaiah is expressive: “So long as your conscience reproves you for anything that you have done contrary to nature, you are not yet free: the reproof means that you are still under trial and have not yet been acquitted”. We all have experience of these reproaches and accusations of our conscience, which deprive us of freedom. It is not unrelated to the darkening of the nous and impurity of the heart.

3) This is just why freedom of the nous is demanded. If all the evils originate from darkening and enslavement of the nous, this means that effort must be directed to liberating the nous from the influence of reason, the passions, the senses and the surroundings. Abba Isaiah uses three statements to show the effects of liberating the nous. The first statement is that if the nous is freed “from all hope in things visible, this is a sign that sin has died in you”. If the nous is not freed from its slavery to things visible, then sin cannot die in us. Thus we understand that purity of heart and mortification of sin in us is not unrelated to the freeing of the nous. The second statement of Abba Isaiah is that “if your nous is freed, the breach between it and God is eliminated”. The darkening of the nous creates a great chasm between God and man. The freeing of the nous annihilates this chasm and the person acquires union with God. Man cannot acquire union with God in any other way than by the liberation of his nous. And the third statement is: “If your nous is freed from all its enemies and attains the Sabbath rest, it lives in another age, a new age in which it contemplates things new and undecaying”. Liberation of the nous is related to the Sabbath rest, inner repose and peace. This results in the nous being caught up into the divine and, of course, the revelation of the mysteries of God. Thus, according to the degree of freedom of the nous, there is experience of the mortification of sin, communion with God and the revelation of the mysteries connected with the vision of God.

Furthermore, freedom of the nous from every visual image and every thought is what is called pure prayer and true worship of God. Then the person prays undistractedly and worships God truly. “What then is meant by the worship of God? It means that we have nothing extraneous in our nous when we are praying to Him…”. This is what we call unceasing, inner, noetic prayer of the heart, which takes place without our having any thought in our heart. The nous, which is the most refined attention, returns to the heart and prays to God unceasingly.

4) The entire ascetic effort of the Church lies in liberating the nous from reasoning and the passions. But we realise that this is not an easy matter, and the struggle is bloody and difficult. The holy Fathers are not content to speak of the liberation of the nous, but they go on to emphasise the methods which must be used to achieve this goal. In what follows we shall look at some of these ascetic methods, as Abba Isaiah the Solitary describes and analyses them.

In its effort to return to the heart after its dispersion the nous is helped by the anger which is connected with it. “There is among the passions an anger of the nous, and this anger is in accordance with nature”. Anger, in other words, is the nerves of the soul, but also of the nous, by which it is kept pure. Therefore without anger “a man cannot attain purity”. Of course preparation is necessary in order for the anger according to nature to be activated. It is preceded by detachment, that is, death in relation to every person or thing, and this produces the desire for God. Then the desire for God gives rise to the anger that is in accordance with nature, and that flares up against all the tricks of the enemy”. This anger in accordance with nature is followed by the fear of God, through which love is made manifest.

The nous is very easily taken prisoner by the passions and the senses. For thoughts are provoked by the devil. They stir up pleasure in a thing, with the ulterior aim that the nous should be taken prisoner. Thus, when the nous is captured, the way opens for committing sin. Therefore sobriety and attention are required in order for the nous not to be captured by thoughts, images and fantasies. For this purpose we must cultivate practical virtue. “Let us stand firm in the fear of God, rigorously practising the virtues and not giving our conscience cause to stumble. In the fear of God let us keep our attention fixed within ourselves”. When we speak of practising the virtues we mean obedience, undistractedness, renunciation, reasonable service, etc. The demons cunningly send various thoughts in order that “we will cease to guard our hearts, thinking that we have now attained peace”. Then they make a sudden attack on our soul and master it. Therefore Abba Isaiah recommends: “Let us stand with fear of God and keep guard over our hearts, practising the virtues which check the wickedness of our enemies”. Today young people are usually careless about the practice of the practical virtues, thinking that they are second-rate, and they busy themselves with the theoretical ones, like noetic prayer. We should realise that without action it is impossible for us to advance to the vision of God. If we disregard the practical virtues, especially obedience, repentance, fasting, charity, our nous cannot become free.

Connected with this is the submission of the will of the monk and in general of the Christian to the will of God. “If a monk submits his will to the law of God, then his intellect will govern in accordance with this law all that is subordinate to itself”. As long as we remain under our own will and do not submit to the will of God, the nous cannot govern the inner world of man. Submission of the nous to God and His will has great consequences. Then God helps and strengthens him. If God sees that the nous has entirely submitted to Him and puts its hope in Him alone, He strengthens it, saying: ‘Have no fear, Jacob my son, my little Israel'”. Only by the power of God can the nous become pure and return to its natural place, which is the heart. But God cannot help the person as long as he does not rely exclusively on Him. If the person keeps hopes in other directions as well and does not rest all his hope on God, He does not help him in his effort to gain his inner freedom.

When the nous grows strong through the grace of God and increasing love for God, “it struggles against what is contrary to nature, separates this from what is in accordance with nature”. How can the nous make this struggle without being strengthened and helped by God? We know that man is not an autonomous being, but made in an image, which means that Christ is his archetype and it is through Christ that he can fulfill the purpose of his creation. With boldness the nous can fight the enemy. This boldness, man’s relationship with God, is very significant: “When the nous hears these words of reassurance, it says boldly to its enemies: ‘Who would fight with me? Let him stand against me. And who would accuse me? Let him draw near to me. Behold, the Lord is my helper; who will harm me?. If a man receives no help when at war, he can feel no confidence when at peace.

By the power of the anger which is united with the nous, a person must expel from his heart every provocation of a thought. It is a teaching of the holy Fathers that whereas at first we need to watch the thoughts which are working in our mind, the main effort is not to allow the thoughts to enter our heart. Or if they have already entered the heart, we should make every effort to expel them from it. It is in this way that purity of heart is achieved. Abba Isaiah says: “At the time of prayer, we should expel from our heart the provocation of each evil thought, rebutting it in a spirit of devotion”.

The heart is being guarded when the nous stands at the gate of the heart and does not permit thoughts to enter it. In the orthodox asceticism of the Church this is called watchfulness. Abba Isaiah advises: “Stand guard, then, over your heart and keep a watch on your senses”. Both the heart and the senses need to be guarded. The nous must keep unharmed and pure not only the senses of the body, but also the senses of the soul. For just as there are bodily senses, the soul too has senses. Thus when the nous keeps the senses free of carnal desires and acquires dispassion, then too, in the possible attack of the devil and the passions, if the nous “continually calls upon God in secret”, God sends His help. This means that in order for God to help man in this struggle, man’s free assent is required, and this cooperation is expressed by the effort of the nous to keep the heart and senses pure. Therefore “the monk should shut all the gates of his soul, that is, the senses, so that he is not lured astray by them”.

A person needs to watch his heart every day. Furthermore, as we have said before, this constitutes what is called ‘nepsis’, watchfulness. The saint says: “Examine yourself daily in the sight of God, and discover which of the passions is in your heart. Cast it out and so escape His judgement”. So it is essential to be watchful of your heart.

Through this ascetic effort a person acquires the great virtue of discretion, which all the holy Fathers respect and consider to be closely connected with illumination of the nous. Through watchfulness and guarding of the nous the ascetics acquire discrimination of the virtues and vices, they know which virtue to practise alone and which to practise when their brothers are present, which virtue comes first, and which second or third; they know which passion attacks the soul and which the body, which virtues concern the soul and which the body, and which evils beget other evils. In this way the person attains dispassion. For so long as there is war, a person is under the power of fear and trembling, wondering whether he will be defeated or will win, but “dispassion is invincible”. By the grace of God the prize has been won. And this dispassion is the union of the three: body, soul and spirit. Of course the spirit is the grace of God. “When the three become one through the energy of the Holy Spirit, they cannot again be separated”.

A result of the liberation of the nous is that prayer becomes undistracted. This means that the person’s nous is illuminated by the grace of God. Then he communes with God in stillness, “guarding his thoughts from distraction and his nous from curiosity”.

This ascetic effort is the foundation of the spiritual life. Through this the person is released from the dominion of death, the passions and sin. Through this effort the nous is liberated from the passions and reasoning and is prepared for the vision of God. We cannot speak of the spiritual life apart from this reality.

(to be continued…)

Met Hierotheos_antiqued